Choudhry: The Polarization of Partisan Media

Hillary Clinton speaking at AIPAC Policy Conference in 2016. (Unmodified Creative Commons photo by Lorie Shaull.bit.ly/1jxQJMa)

In early September, Hillary Clinton tweeted out an endorsement of a website called Verrit. Created by Peter Daou, a former strategist for Clinton’s campaign, the website calls itself the “media for the 65.8 million.”

There’s a good chance you don’t know how Verrit works (authentication codes? pictures of facts from different sources?) and, to be fair, few people do. But that’s not really the important thing about Verrit.

It’s that it clearly caters to a certain audience. Specifically, the “65,853,516 Americans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, giving her a decisive popular vote victory over Donald Trump,” according to the website.

Verrit seems to be the response to Clinton’s point about the “disadvantage” Democrats have in the current media landscape.

In an interview on Pod Save America, Clinton said, “The other side has dedicated propaganda channels. That’s what I call Fox News. It has outlets like Breitbart and crazy Infowars and things like that.”

“Because what you’ve got is a right-wing advocacy propaganda, and you’ve got a kind of mainstream media that engages in false equivalency. And it’s tough, if you are a Democrat, trying to navigate through that,” she added.

Her solution? Have more liberal media to counteract the conservative media. Where there are right-wing bloggers and radio show hosts, there should be left-wing bloggers and podcast hosts.

But is this really the right solution? Should there be more partisan media to counteract partisan media?

Generally speaking, consumers gravitate toward media outlets they already agree with. You won’t find many liberals tuning in to Sean Hannity on Fox News, just like you won’t find many conservatives tuning into Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

Those specific networks have the type of content and focus on the issues that are important to the audience they’re reaching out for, and there isn’t much overlap.

That isn’t to say that no one consumes nonpartisan media – people on the left and right cite articles from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, ProPublica, and others, when trying to make a point based on objective fact.

But, given the current climate and the fact that the criteria of what constitutes an objective fact is no longer objective, it seems less and less likely that either party would reach out toward a media outlet that doesn’t cater to their specific need. And when the President of the United States himself calls certain outlets “fake” and “failing,” it doesn’t seem as though this will end anytime soon.

As conservatives turn away from traditionally unbiased news organizations and turn toward places like Breitbart and Infowars, Clinton wants liberals to do the same – to places like Verrit.

There isn’t an exact equivalency between liberal outlets and conservative outlets – one likes more fact-based information, while the other prefers a more opinionated approach. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re two sides of the same coin.

What good does this do? Liberals aren’t going to convince conservatives of anything using Verrit as a source, and neither are liberals going to believe conservatives citing Breitbart. Arguments are going to be as fractured and as biased as they are now, no matter how many how many outlets there are on either side.

Consumers chose media outlets that they already agree with, which is why partisan media works out so well. MSNBC and Fox News consistently score high ratings in key demographics, while CNN trails behind in third. When leaning toward a specific side works so well, what’s the incentive to stop?

Understanding different points of views and exposing yourself to content outside of your “bubble” leads to better and more coherent debates. If you know what the other side wants and how they think, you have a better chance of reasoning with them and having an actual discussion that doesn’t dissolve into angry partisan bickering.

But there’s little reason to do that. Liberals see conservative outlets and decide they want nothing to do with them, and they head for the places they feel most comfortable. And the same goes for conservatives, who, arguably, did it first.

Clinton thinks that the answer to partisan media is more partisan media. Whether or not this is the real answer, consumers have already seemed to decide that it is.

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